Palace Guard

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Prologue

Rosies Cafe March 2001

Reverend RG Cunningham seemed an ordinary guy from an ordinary town. Except for a full head of neatly combed silver hair, he looked like he got out of a truck cab. Worn Pendleton shirt, baggy jeans tucked into rubber boots.

“Good morning, Reverend. You coming or going? I mean your hospital rounds.”

“Up late last night there and on my way back.”

“So sorry, Reverend. I’m sure we know who and hopefully will not hear the name Sunday.”

“Hope not too, Charlie. So” -

“Comin up, Reverend. Cup’s got your name on it.”

RG Cunningham propped himself up from the counter at Rosies Cafe, wrote a note on a napkin and shoved it into his back pocket, spinning to rebalance on the stool. “I got to get over to see your sister, Charlie. She’s a champion with all that radiation.”

“Thanks for seeing Sis.” Charlie slid the steaming mug over the counter like a special gift. “Snow’s gone for the most part, but now the dirty stuff sticks around like piles of coal. Easter’s comin’, and then you’ll be happy you’re preaching here and not in town. We could get another blizzard or two.”

Easter was going to be big, because RG Cunningham had only been humanized since he laid down the sword ten years ago. It was like lightning struck him at sunrise service. The arrogance of rank and legalized murder that was a just war had been digested, purged like an enema and metabolized. Marrying a native, he had hidden behind a myth of counting coup, but killing got too easy. So easy, he understood the serial killer and in his most private moments he prayed it wasn’t him. He was a warrior seduced when young.

The coffee almost singed his brows while in reverie of his life’s voyage to this little dump of a restaurant in nowhere USA. But it was life saving that humility had come to him. Generals and colonels through the ages were simply lucky to even have a statue still standing.

Does a person have to get tinged by the fires of hell - or minister to parishioners day and night - just to get the respect of the human beings around him? Yes, he knew that was his only way. One more day above the ground was not life - just arrogance in the face of death. It wasn’t just beating death by stealth and always getting the jump on one’s aggressor. These people didn’t even know that about him. That knowledge saved him as he was one of the best at that - born somebody’s soldier.

“Colonel Jim. How you doing, sir?” The priest slipped into the booth to talk with the frail man paging through the morning paper. The man’s wrinkled face and watery eyes seemed distant without immediate recognition.

“You remember me, Colonel?” The old man stared with a blank expression that made the Reverend fear the non-recognition of a demented man. His elbows on the table, Cunningham hunched over the table to get closer to the elderly man and stir recognition.

“I remember you well. You were one of the best swimmers we had at the academy. To see you in the cloth still shocks me, but I’m just glad we were able to get you back here. You speak of war.” The old man stopped as if trying to tell time from the man’s watch and straightened as if squinting into the snowdrifts to catch a glint of sunrise outside the cafe. “That old metal bracelet from the Peace Movement. She got your soul, didn’t she?”

“Not sure, Colonel.” The Reverend stared into his coffee to gather his thoughts for this one.

The colonel was already running images through his right brain. A gallery of portraits from the Chicago riots was too much to ID. “It was Deborah Gehr.” Heaney’s response was quick. "She's from right here, and so are you." The priest was thinking about the right answer to this. There was a prolonged silence. He studied the watery eyes of the old man, who bowed in avoidance of Cunningham’s inquisitive gaze. The elderly head lifted, its forehead wrinkled and eyelids squinting. “That old metal bracelet from the Peace Movement. You still need to wear that as a reminder of a darkness even a seminary and monastery can’t lighten up?”

The Reverend's response would be intellectually polished right out of Seminary. “Just a reminder of the ambiguity of war. Who is the counterterrorist these days and who’s the terrorist? And then who’s to judge youth when the guns are silenced.”

“Silenced, if ever. You’ve beaten death. It’s an epic that you share from the pulpit in small bites for parishioners to digest without poisoning them. They need to hear it from you.”

“Thank you, Sir. You’ve never said anything like that before. I’m glad you’re telling me now.”

“I could tell the world.”

“You knew me before I knew myself.”

He studied the watery eyes of the old man who bowed again in avoidance of Cunningham’s inquisitive gaze. The aged head then lifted, its leathery forehead wrinkled and eyelids squinting. “Yup.”


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